OSTERSUND, Sweden — Make room, Europeans. The Americans are starting to look right at home on the biathlon medals podium.
Tim Burke, who trains at the Maine Winter Sports Center in Fort Kent, matched the best finish ever by a U.S. biathlete in a World Cup event Thursday, finishing second to Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen in the men’s season-opening race. Hegle Svendsen and Burke each missed one target in the 20-kilometer race, but the Norwegian outskied the American to secure his 12th individual World Cup win.
Burke’s silver follows Jeremy Teela’s third-place finish at a World Cup event in March, which snapped a 17-year medals drought for the Americans.
“I think it was a really important step for me,” Burke said on a conference call. “I’ve been super close in the past, but to take the final step up to the podium definitely goes a long way in helping my confidence and it will help my confidence a lot in Vancouver. I know I can do it because I have done it before.”
Health issues had hampered Burke, a native of Paul Smiths, N.Y., at the beginning of the last two seasons, and he made a few adjustments in his training in hopes of getting off to a better start this year.
“I’ve been here before and I don’t know if it’s the experience or my good training the last two weeks but I was really relaxed,” Burke said. “It just felt like another training day out there.”
Burke was among the leaders after the first lap, giving him added confidence. He had a chance to win until the final shooting station, when he missed his only shot.
Hegle Svendsen finished in 52 minutes, 43.7 seconds, with Burke 35.5 seconds behind. Christoph Sumann of Austria was third, 14 seconds behind Burke after also missing one shot.
Still, the finish was a victory for Burke — and the rest of the U.S. team.
It’s the best result since Josh Thompson’s silver medal in a 20K race at Canmore, Canada, in 1992, and bolsters a program that has made great strides in the last four years.
“Today’s result shows me that nothing is impossible,” said Max Cobb, U.S. Biathlon’s executive director. “For me, in my heart, I have to say this is the best American finish ever.”
Biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with rifle marksmanship, is wildly popular in Europe, where it is the top-rated winter sport on television. Not surprisingly, it’s dominated by Europeans, particularly the Norwegians, Germans and Russians, and the competition has only gotten stronger since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The Americans overhauled their program after 2006, hiring Swedish coach Per Nilsson. The U.S. Olympic Committee also quadrupled the federation’s funding.
Slowly, the results started to come. Burke had a pair of top-10 finishes at the 2008 world championships, and has been in the top 10 nine times at a World Cup. Teela had his podium finish, and Leif Nordgren won a bronze at last year’s Youth/Junior Biathlon World Championships.
Now Burke has a silver medal, with the season only just beginning. Jay Hakkinen was the next-best American, finishing 28th.
“In these endurance sports, you don’t get there overnight. There’s many, many days of frustration along the way to reach this level,” Cobb said. “I couldn’t be happier with the way the season’s begun.”